Why does everything cost £4,999?

Workarounds, common behaviour? Obviously ‘everything’ doesn’t actually cost £4,999. However, if you work in public services sometimes it feels like a lot of things do. It’s linked to some common behaviour you see around procurement and ‘workarounds’.

The magical £4,999 figure might be something you are familiar with if there’s an organisation procurement policy with a £5,000 threshold. Beyond £5,000 and the policy requires bureaucratic paraphernalia like business cases, three written quotes or an expressive version of ‘The Bird of Paradise Dance’ to delight the Procurement Officer. It can be a pain.

As a result what you often see are ‘workarounds’. Behaviour that people engage in to make their lives easier. Part of me thinks that’s a bad thing.

The rules and processes are there for a reason; usually quite good, well intentioned reasons. There’s a quote I’ve written about which is along the lines of “never remove a fence until you understand why it was put there in the first place”. I think that ‘climbing over the fence’ by using workarounds equally applies.

However, in many cases this workaround behaviour can also be about ‘doing the right thing’. Delivering a quicker, safer, more effective and economical service. I find it hard to argue against behaviours that are ultimately ‘doing the right thing’. However, if people are working against a policy or rule this puts them and others at risk. So something isn’t right in the system. The fact that workarounds exist, and many of us have probably used them (for absolutely the right reasons) is worth thinking about.

Keeping below the £5K procurement threshold… I don’t think I need to labour the point on this – but people frequently take the path of least resistance.

If you want a sobering read on the reality of what happens around procurement, and an understanding of why people create ‘workarounds’ try this from Harriet Boulding and Saba Hinrichs-Krapels. Factors influencing procurement behaviour and decision making: an exploratory study in a UK healthcare provider.

A key finding from the work says, “We observed that these factors led requisitioners to employ a variety of strategies or so-called ‘workarounds’ to overcome the challenges they encountered… which both addressed and created difficulties.” A nice way of saying ‘the procurement system is a bit of a mess and peoples’ behaviour didn’t help’. I do recommend reading the paper which uses data from lived experiences and ‘snowball sampling’, introduced to me by Sam Williams.

Behavioural insights – making things better? As this post is essentially about behaviour, I’d better mention something about behavioural insights, there’s a lot of material out there. Interestingly, from a ‘choice architecture’ perspective, the choice is a bit overwhelming… ha ha ha. (Apologies, I shouldn’t laugh at my own jokes, here’s something explaining Choice Architecture; how to avoid being a ‘Meeting Lemming’)

So, I’ve picked a path of least resistance and I’ve gone for this published by The Behavioural Insights Team. Buying better: improving NHS procurement with behavioural insights.

There’s plenty of useful material in the document prompting thinking about cognitive biases and reasons why people might behave in a certain way. Things like; choice overload, risk aversion and status quo bias.

The suggestions for improvement all make sense (up to a point);

  • Design Smart Defaults – make it difficult for people to do the ‘wrong’ thing.
    • Online systems help. Preselected choices and drop down boxes limit what you can ‘choose’.
    • But what if you are a small organisation and can’t afford the procurement software?
  • Simplify and Harness Friction – I understand why we are reducing ‘friction’.
    • Make the ‘chosen’ system ‘easy’ so that people get things done by taking the path of least resistance.
    • I am struggling with what ‘harnessing friction’ means though.
  • Use Cost and Social Norms – the social nudges we’ve all become familiar with from buying online.
    • Messages (nudges) saying; “80% of efficient purchasers buy this brand of gloves” (I don’t know if it’s just me but… “efficient purchasers” winds me up a bit.)
    • Prompts from other ‘user ratings’ and product reviews.
  • Provide Timely Prompts – messages that arrive at just in time to stop you doing the ‘wrong’ thing and encouraging (nudging) you to do the right thing.
    • An example; “You have selected a more expensive delivery option. Are you sure you want to proceed with this option?”
    • This feels like something that would work well in a large organisation, with standard products and services, and the budget to afford a sophisticated online procurement system.

 I get it, but… There’s a bit of a nagging doubt sitting with me at the moment. I understand why we need good procurement processes. For all the reasons of providing value for money, avoiding fraud, giving some certainty to suppliers and many other good reasons. I appreciate the work of the Behavioural Insights Team – it’s a lot like what the likes of Amazon and other retailers have been successfully doing to drive our behaviour (in the way they want) for many years.

But, there’s always the BIG question of who sits behind the system and decides on the ‘right’ choices we should be nudged towards? Also, what does this mean if you really are looking for bespoke and innovative products? Will a truly efficient and sophisticated procurement system kill off innovation? So many questions…

Finally, I wonder if the Behavioural Insights people were ever in touch with Boulding and Hinrichs-Krapels?

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Never climb over a fence until you understand why it was put there in the first place. Procurement rules are there for good reasons. Have a think before you climb the fence.
  2. A single procurement system will not cope with everything. There will be bespoke and innovative things that fall outside of a standardised approach that need to be procured. How does a system cope with those to avoid non compliance, workarounds and fence climbing?
  3. Behavioural insight approaches and ‘nudges’ are great where there is a standardised, predictable and established system. But who decides on the ‘right’ choices?

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

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